Columbus Ave. Retail Proposal Raises Hackles

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Anne Cottavoz has been encouraging the organic lifestyle for 17 years at Columbus Natural Food, her store on Columbus Avenue and West 95th Street. But now she is organizing loyal customers against her landlord’s plan for expansion that will change a swath of the avenue’s landscape.

Cottavoz’s store, the Chinese restaurant Hunan Park, a Subway sandwich franchise and a Banco Popular branch would be in the middle of a construction site and at risk for closure or relocation.

The owner of 95 W. 95th St., a 248-apartment tower called Columbus House, wants to construct a two-story structure that will wrap around the 33-story residential building, creating a total of 4,950 square feet of retail along Columbus Avenue, between West 95th and 96th streets. The second story of the expansion would include facilities for tenants, such as a kitchen and community space.

The new two-story retail and community building would be constructed up to the sidewalk, cutting down the public space in front of the businesses.

Columbus Natural Food owner Anne Cottavoz is organizing support to save four businesses that may be victims of landlord’s plan for expansion. Photo by Dan Rivoli

Columbus House tenants, meanwhile, would get a residential courtyard and a new terrace for those living above the second floor community space.

The original proposal called for three retail spaces along the stretch of Columbus Avenue. That stoked fear among small businesses on the ground floor of Columbus House that they would be replaced by national chain stores, which have populated the Columbus Square development three blocks north. But after Community Board 7’s land use committee voted down that plan April 21, Columbus House’s owners put forward another proposal calling for a minimum of five retail spaces, which would increase opportunities for smaller merchants.

“We’re a very proactive landlord. We took in the constructive criticism from the community board and did circulate to the community board revised plans,” said Scott Alper, a partner at the Witkoff Group, which owns Columbus House. “Our intention is to keep mom-and-pop retailers and create as many stores as necessary. It’s important to the neighborhood.”

Indeed, Columbus Natural Food patrons who live nearby had harsh words for any plan that would bring in chain stores.

Dorothy Wiedis, who lives in Park West Village and is a customer of the health food store, called the original proposal “disgusting.”

“It’s nice to have small convenient stores you can’t get lost in,” she said. “These people should have first dibs on the space at current cost.”

It is unclear if the health food store and its neighbors will even be around by the time construction starts. Details of the proposal, which requires a special permit from the City Planning Commission, are not finalized, and the stores’ leases may have expired when work finally starts.

Nicola Brennan, a repeat customer to the health food store, said she liked the chain stores at Columbus Square, but wants local mom-and-pop stores for balance.

“These little stores are far more important,” Brennan said. “It gives a sense of community.”

Since Board 7’s land use committee voted down the plan, Cottavoz got each of the affected businesses to gather signatures for a petition and put posters in their window asking people to help “maintain some humanity in our neighborhood.”

Ed and Rhoda Green, seniors and long-time customers of Columbus Natural Food, handed out little slips of paper asking people to attend the full board meeting May 4 and oppose the plan.

“The mom-and-pop stores is what we like,” Ed Green said. “There’s a common touch. We’d miss that.”

At press time, the full board had not yet taken a position on the plan, but a resolution had been prepared to disapprove the proposal due to insufficient time to review changes.

Though there is no binding agreement that would force the Witkoff Group to keep the retail spaces for small businesses, Alper said the company stands by its reputation.

Cottavoz, however, is unconvinced.

“They saw the resistance and they now say they want small stores,” said Cottavoz, who saw the revised plan May 3. “Now, all of a sudden, they want us back in there? It just doesn’t add up.”

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